Ecuador Offers a Half-Off Climate Swap

The ITT oil fields, located within Ecuador's Yasuní National Park, have become the center of an experiment that could bring equity and human rights into the climate equation.

Yasuní is one the few pristine places in the world with a high level of biodiversity.

Photo by Sebastián Crespo/Getty Images

Rafael Correa won the Ecuadorian presidency on the strength of his promises to deliver much-needed social programs to his country’s largely impoverished population. He also pledged to protect Ecuador’s natural heritage of biodiversity. Add to this political mix a lot of foreign debt and a billion or more barrels of oil located under a UNESCO bioreserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and it’s clear why some observers saw the nation as caught in a classic stalemate between development and environment.

Now, though, the ITT oil fields—located within Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse places and home to a number of indigenous communities—have become an experiment in the possibility of having it both ways.

Development of the ITT fields would be a climate change disaster.

In May 2007, Correa proposed a unique solution: if the international community will agree to pay or excuse debt worth $350 million annually for 10 years (half the anticipated value of the oil) to help fund sustainable development in Ecuador, then the oil, the forests, and the indigenous groups threatened by the encroachment of oil companies will all be left alone.

It’s a proposal that many are taking seriously. In addition to the danger posed to biodiversity and indigenous rights, development of the ITT fields would be a climate change disaster, generating an estimated 436 million tons of CO2 and destroying a huge swath of tropical rainforest crucial to sequestering carbon and regulating weather patterns.

Though the Bali climate agreement endorsed the importance of forest preservation, it failed to safeguard against the transformation of forests into internationally traded and managed “carbon sinks” that would exclude indigenous people and traditional livelihoods from their borders. Ecuador’s example may point toward a way to protect forests without compromising a future that values equity and human rights.

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